The Death of Unicorns

I remember the exact moment I closed the door on sentimentality. It’s funny because I don’t remember the date, or precisely how old I was, or too many of the relevant details that would make for a cohesive narrative, but I remember the exact moment. It was when I killed the unicorn.

Cohesive narrative notwithstanding, let’s see if I can at least provide some context. I collected unicorns as a girl. I adored them. My favorite bed sheets had unicorns, I had posters, a stuffed unicorn, I begged my parents to rent “The Last Unicorn” every weekend, and as gifts I received figurines that positively littered the top of my dresser. Particular favorites were little blown glass unicorns with gold manes and tails and horns. They were probably cheap, but to my 8 year old mind they were absolute treasures. I loved the way the light gleamed through the smooth glass, or struck the gold like sparks. They felt rich and special and like tiny portals to the high fantasy lands where I so desperately wanted to escape.

We escaped a lot when I was a kid. The grown-ups called it “moving”, but when you do it every year without fail, you’re running from something. It didn’t matter then; it was just a fact of life. The school year ends and the house gets packed. I learned early on how to pack my own room in musty boxes, wrapping my treasures in dry, gritty newspaper. Practice improved my technique. But no matter how careful I was, no matter how meticulous with my ration of coupon inserts, something invariably emerged broken from a box. Leaving was never a disappointment, but arriving always was.

One by one, my tiny blown glass unicorns became casualties of our nomadic life. A horn occasionally, but more commonly a leg or tail. The needle-like edges pricked my fingers as I unwrapped them, their jagged amputations pitiful and useless. They could no longer stand on three crystalline points, one leg raised artfully mid-prance. They couldn’t balance delicately on two hind legs and a tail, a rear forever ruined by the missing point. Somewhere between 9 years old and 11, the second-to-last unicorn broke. I think I remember crying a little as I unwrapped it, but that may have been out of habit because I don’t remember feeling sad for long. It was more like a flash of grief and then a wave of anger. Of course it broke. They always break. No sensible person can expect a child-wrapped glass figurine weighing 2 ounces to survive an interstate move in a U-Haul. Who does that??

I unwrapped the last whole unicorn along side the broken one and stared at it. We’d just arrived at our new house, but as I looked at it all the joy I’d derived from its charm and delicacy was blackened by the knowledge that in a year’s time it would be broken. The inevitability of moving was one of the few certain things in my life. The only constant was change. In that moment, I hated every person who’d ever given me anything breakable. Surely the adults – who created the change, who controlled the change, who knew the change was coming – surely they knew what my child mind grasped? Moves are inevitable. Tiny glass unicorns don’t survive moves. Broken unicorns make me cry. Why do the adults in my life want me to cry?

I threw away the broken unicorn and its intact companion with it. I can’t cry over it if it doesn’t exist. It was a conscious decision to choose relief from loss over whatever fleeting happiness material things could give me. I was somewhere between 9 years old and 11.

Yesterday, I signed the closing papers on the sale of the house my marriage ended in. I left feeling free in a way I haven’t experienced in a long time. Arriving was a disappointment. Leaving never is.

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Break

There’s an empty parking lot not far from my house that runs the width of a city block. It’s a common dog-walking route for me because I can let the dogs out on a long leash and just sort of meander without worrying about traffic or distractions. Today, I took Heidi out by herself (that is, without Scout, whom I walked earlier) and gave her the “break” command.

It’s an old school word from our Germany days when off-leash walks were common and she had to know the difference between “heel” and “freedom”. Today, I first held up the leash and said her name to get her attention. Then I dropped the leash and said, “Break!” I swear she grinned from ear to ear before taking off at a run. Well, a trot. Her stiff hips and arthritic knees hobbled her and her body resembled a see-saw as she made the best of what mobility she has.

But her ears and her eyes were joyous. She never gets off leash freedom with me anymore, and while I’ll never know if her mind remembers the vast fallow German fields, with their poppy edges in summer and mounds of sugar beets in the fall and deep snow in winter, I can’t help but feel her muscle memory is sound. Her body remembers, and her exuberance is real.

She had all the happiness this afternoon. That’s the benefit to being a dog, I guess. I was overcome with the grief of knowing how brief her life is, how unfair it is that she’s fettered by both living arrangements and biology. I grieved for the life we both had five years ago, the happiness that I’ll never know again but that her body remembers. There’s a popular sentiment that we should strive to live moment to moment like our dogs do – finding joy in the present and exploiting it fully. I’ve never been able to do that, nor believed that we should. Heidi and I have always shared the full range of emotions – she gets the joy and I take the burden of sadness. It’s just the deal I made with her: I will make you happy, and you will breathe with me when I’m sad. And between the two of us, we live fully.